The European Commission decided on December 6, 2004, to increase the import quotas for Egyptian potatoes from 130,000 tonnes to 190,000t. At the same time, the commission praised the stringent measures taken by Egyptian authorities with respect to controlling pest-free potato-growing regions.
Commercial counselor from the Egyptian Embassy in London, Abdelrehman Abdul Raouf, says: “This decision will help to reinvigorate potato exports to the EU, and in particular the UK. The further concessions Egypt has received for its volume quotas are 190,000t in the 2005 season and this will increase to 250,000t after 2005.”
However, the Egyptian potato sector has faced difficulties and fought with the reputation of having potato brown rot disease for several years now - a disease that can seriously affect potato yields. Dr Ihab Tadros, chairman of the London-based Egyptian Potato Consortium says pest management efforts are continuously improving and today the majority of exporters are complying with EU policy. He says: “EPC has not had any cases of brown rot for several seasons.”
But the threat of potato brown rot disease, and its control, is an issue the sector takes seriously and was heavily discussed by members of the British Egyptian Business Association at an event during 2004. Tadros says the EU is supporting the Egyptian government in the control of the disease, as long as exported potatoes come from pest-free areas.
Exporters are allowed only five food-safety interceptions, but the monitoring systems that are currently in place are not fully working says one member and grower, Ali Eissa: “Last season, 14 interceptions occurred in the EU but a safety net should be introduced in Egypt too. In reality, the checks are positioned only at the entry points to the EU.”
A Defra report, dated February 2004, stated that of the 2,500t of potatoes imported from Egypt at that time, a finding of brown rot was confirmed in the sendings, which resulted in the destruction of 24t of potatoes. Following this, EC directive 96/301/EC was passed on March 29, 2004, subjecting exports of Egyptian potatoes to specific controls under the EU plant-health regime, and authorising member states to take additional temporary measures against the dissemination of potato brown rot from infected imports.
A series of amending decisions were implemented to only allow imports of Egyptian potatoes from established pest-free areas, identified as basins (irrigation units) or sectors (administrative units already established, which cover a group of basins). The commissions directive, 2004/4/EC, lays down labeling requirements, including the irrigation basin or sector where the potatoes have come from, and the appropriate measures for waste disposal, after packaging or processing of the potatoes, to prevent any spread of brown rot.
A dedicated Brown Rot Office in Egypt works closely with EU government agencies in deciding which lands are pest free and suitable for potato plantings destined for EU export.
Tadros says there are now very stringent checks involved when exporting potatoes and three tests must be completed beforehand: “Firstly a soil sample is taken and tested; 75 days later, and prior to lifting, a potato sample is tested; and finally at the packhouse, random potatoes are tested for disease prior to loading for shipment. If all tests are passed, then the shipments can be sent.”
This potato season, Tadros expects similar volumes of Nicola potato production - 9,000t - compared to last year. “Both production and yields have been good because of good weather so far. We anticipate a slight increase in yields - around 10 per cent - as well as improved potato quality in comparison to last season with price expectations also similar to last year.”
The first liftings were carried out pre-Christmas and loaded onto a vessel at Damietta port on December 28, 2004, which arrived on time in the UK at Felixstowe port on January 7. “There were four reefer containers carrying Nicola potatoes that arrived in the first week of January. From then on, there will be weekly shipments throughout the season until mid-April and potatoes will be available until May,” says Tadros.
However, Mayada Eid, operations manager for Hana Fresh UK, says shipping was a problem for them last season: “The shipping lines have shifted their services towards the US because it is more profitable route for them, and we have been experiencing severe shortages. Despite this setback, our potatoes should hit the UK market by the end of this month with the main varieties arriving including Nicola, Charlotte and Maris Peer, mainly for the supermarkets but also the wholesale markets.”
Hana Fresh is the UK office for Egyptian-based exporter Daltex, and handles the Egyptian season from mid-January through to mid-May. Eid is also positive about this season: “The quality is very good, as well as yields. We have focused on the German market previously but we plan to export approximately 7,000t to the UK this season as a trial and see how the volumes sell. We have a good range of varieties - Nicola, Inova, King Edwards, Maris Peer but our best is Charlotte and we are also testing a new variety, Princess.”
A recent development for the Egyptian agricultural sector is the introduction and enforcement of certificates of origin, although the majority of Egyptian exporters do not have the systems in place yet to handle this. But this is not the case for the growers EPC works with, says Tadros: “All three growers in Egypt are now Nature’s Choice approved as of December 2004.
“EPC has also improved the ability to trace its produce by coding products from the field to the supermarket shelves. When an order is received, a code number is placed on the bags in Egypt, which is continued on through to the UK packhouses for distribution. The ability to trace the produce was initially a request from the UK multiples but we also wanted to be able to track the potatoes to give our growers feedback regarding good or bad quality issues.
“The ability to trace the potatoes back to the grower means we can monitor whether our growers are meeting our quality requirements and it help us to work with them - it will improve both the quality guarantee and assurance process.”
First-of-season EPC supplies hit the wholesale markets this week - Bristol, Gateshead, London and Glasgow and were well received. But 70 per cent of potatoes sent are destined for the supermarkets. “Twenty kilo bags are packed for sale in the UK’s wholesale markets and we send one tonne packs to UK pre-packers who supply the multiples,” he says.
A few years ago, EPC started commercial trials of Maris Peer and Charlotte varieties using seeds bought from Scotland and the Netherlands. Tadros says: “The Maris Peer trials have been successful with 2,000t grown this season, compared to 200t in 2004. We are happy with the results and growers are now convinced about the variety. We will export a percentage of that to the UK this season and import more seeds to increase the production area. It helps that we have an assured buyer for the potatoes in the UK.”
However, good yields in the commercial trials for Charlotte have been more difficult to achieve. “We will only send 200t to the UK this season but we will try and get an alternative salad variety that better suits the Egyptian growing conditions. Because of the poor match with our climate, growers were not so interested in focusing on Charlotte and concentrated on producing the successful Nicola instead.”
Despite the increased quota, both EPC and Hana Fresh will not take full advantage of the opportunity this season. EPC will export only what it has planted says Tadros, “but we will increase sendings next season, now that we know the quota allowances. Our next goal also includes targeting new markets in the EU as well increasing supplies for our other main buyers in Germany and Italy.”
Eid adds: “If Hana Fresh and Daltex were to take advantage of the increased quotas, it still requires us to ship the produce within a certain time period - January 1 to March 31 - before the duty is applied on our imports to the EU. This quota increase would help us marginally but the shipping service from Egypt to Europe has been difficult during the last season and if it continues like this, we won’t export the volumes we want.”
Raouf believes Egyptian potatoes are known for their good quality but it remains necessary to improve market awareness regarding Egypt’s production and quality abilities. “The UK is an important trading partner as it is a major potato importer,” he says. “But Egyptian exporters have limited UK market penetration because of the low level of consumer awareness. Egypt’s agricultural sector has radically improved in the last few years, from infrastructure to post-harvest facilities with the aim of boosting the export profile.”
Raouf can see the UK opportunities available to Egyptian growers - Egypt’s total potato production averages two million tonnes and exports are in excess of 300,000t a year, 15 per cent of total production: “According to statistics, the volume of Egyptian potatoes exported to the UK from January to March 2004 was only 15,000t, considerably less than the target. Additionally, UK production has decreased to 5.9mt and in order to cover the UK consumption gap of 7.8mt, a further 1.7mt pf potatoes needs to be imported. This is why Egyptian potato exporters have a major opportunity to expand their export volumes and fulfill the UK’s demand,” he says.